What’s a factotum?

Word count: 318 words

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

Building your vocabulary is always a good idea. It  benefits your reading and it also helps you be more specific and precise in your writing. Here is my word of the week, factotum.

I was lucky enough to meet Janet Soskice (pictured here) — the cousin of a dear friend — at Cambridge University last summer. She kindly invited my five-member family over for a home-made lunch and then gave us a walking tour of several of the spectacular colleges on the campus.

Soskice is a professor of philosophical theology at the university  and a Fellow of Jesus College, so her tour came packed with historical tidbits and many useful tips, such as the best garden at Cambridge (Clare College). We were even lucky enough to have her lead us into a choir rehearsal at King’s College.

Unbeknownst to Soskice, however, she has also given me my word of the week. In her book The Sisters of Sinai, which I am reading now, she wrote:

“Early on Ferguson was directed to the counting house and then used by all his uncles as a factotum.

I have encountered the word factotum many times in my reading over the years. But, I’m embarrassed to admit, I never bothered to look it up because understanding it never seemed integral to any particular sentence. Now, I have learned it means a person or servant who has a wide range of responsibilities. Origins of the word date back to Middle Latin in the 1560s, from fac, the imperative of facere “to do” and totum, meaning “all.” (You can remember this from the word “total” which comes from the same root.)

I’m trying to become more diligent about looking up words I don’t know. The Kindle’s dictionary makes it easier. With a few clicks of my fingers I can briefly leave my book, look up the word and then head back to reading.

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